Beltway Beat: Erasing Reno

John McCaslin
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Posted: Jul 17, 2002 12:00 AM
Beltway Beat spent this past weekend in Palm Beach County, Fla., where in a mock election Saturday (July 13), voters got to try out the nifty new $15 million computerized touch-screen voting machines - a vast improvement over the "butterfly ballots" of the 2000 presidential election. Still, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) isn't satisfied. He complains that county election officials installed the computer voting machines in supermarkets rather than the usual polling places like schools and civic halls, thereby preventing a representative sample of voters from showing up. Another Democrat, state Rep. Irv Slosberg, went so far as to say that grocery-based polling stations probably drew only youths who wanted to play "computer games." However, I watched dozens of county residents, young and old alike, test their skills on the touch screens. Rather than choosing candidates, voters were asked to pick their favorite patriotic song and decide whether the words "under God" should be deleted from the Pledge of Allegiance. After making their selections - as will be the case in actual future elections - voters were allowed to recheck their ballots. If an error is discovered - for instance, a vote for "Janet Reno" instead of "Jeb Bush" - they can simply erase their ballots and start all over again. ADDED SECURITY Let's get this straight: a security task force will monitor the new Department of Homeland Security? Sort of. The new task force, impaneled by the Republican Study Committee, will ensure that the new department remains true to President Bush's vision of improved homeland security without creating a bloated new bureaucracy. In other words, the task force and its chairman, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), won't be monitoring homeland security as much as they will be monitoring Congress. "Unfortunately, all too often, Congress has used similar 'overhauls' as an excuse to expand an already bloated federal bureaucracy and make unwarranted intrusions into the lives of citizens," Pence explains. SPEEDING ALIENS Talk about mixed-up laws: Aliens who are hiding in the United States illegally are legally sitting behind the wheels of cars. That drives Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, a member of the Judiciary immigration, border security and claims subcommittee, up the wall. The congressman is renewing his call for a national policy tying the expiration date of driver's licenses for foreign nationals to the expiration date of their visas. At a most recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on homeland security, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge said his office was working with states to close the loophole. Some states, such as Flake's Arizona, already require that driver's licenses expire no later than a visa. However, in most states, a driver's license can expire years after a foreign national's visa expires. With a valid driver's license, illegal aliens can rent a car, open a bank account, and perform countless other tasks that make their living in the United States illegally very simple. CLOTURE, YOU SAY? A late-night brainstorming session between two young women at a Washington pub has led to the publication of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to American Government." This Wednesday evening (July 17) from 6-8 p.m., the Fund for American Studies (1706 New Hampshire Ave. NW) will host a book party in honor of the new idiot's guide, written by two Washington reporters. "The book came about as all good ideas do: from a late-night conversation in a local watering hole in April 2001," says Mary Shaffrey, 27, a Washington Times reporter who authored the book with Melanie Fonder, 25, a political free-lance reporter. Both women previously worked together at the Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress. The very next day, the ladies approached Alpha books, the company that publishes the "Complete Idiot's" series. Several different versions of the book were bounced about, including one on Congress and the Supreme Court. The contract for "American Government" was signed just five days before September 11. "There is so much misinformation out there," says Shaffrey. "All of our friends from outside of Washington would always ask us about what we did and how we understood government so well, so we just decided to write down what we knew and what we had learned from covering Congress. "I don't think either one of us thought the book would ever come about, it was just a fun, crazy idea - that actually worked." The book is divided into five sections: executive, legislative, judicial, money in politics and local government. It explains in very simple terms how government works and describes the role of citizens in government and politics. Quotations pulled from historical figures about government, as well as definitions on everything from "cloture" to "veep," also fill the pages. Keeping the project all in the family, Robert Schlesinger, the former political editor at the Hill and now a Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe, wrote the foreword. John Sherry, a former intern at the Hill and recent American University graduate, helped with the editing and proofing. The entire process, from initial contact to publication, took just over a year. SOUP FOR SAM More than 2,000 senior government executives won't be sitting behind their desks this week. Rather, the large group of government leaders will be discussing homeland security and the war on terrorism at the Excellence in Government 2000 conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. Among the briefers: White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and - to provide some much-needed therapy during these difficult days - Jack Canfield, author and co-creator of the popular series of books that includes "Chicken Soup for the Soul." LOADED FOR BEAR Among members voting in committee last week to secure the nation's borders by moving the U.S. Customs Services into the new Department of Homeland Security was House Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) "Bringing together all aspects of the government to work as a team will bolster our national security like nothing else," observed Foley, who after congressional redistricting will have three Customs offices in his region in West Palm, Fort Myers and Sarasota. He warned evil-doers: "We're getting closer to having all our guns in a row, locked and loaded." I, JOE, TAKE JIM How does one gauge whether the Federal Marriage Amendment is gaining momentum in Congress? The ACLU has just mounted yet another attack on the amendment, that's how. "As usual, the ACLU deserves a creative writing award for their inflammatory rhetoric and distorted description of the legal impact of the Federal Marriage Amendment," notes Matt Daniels, executive director of the Alliance for Marriage. "Bear in mind that the amendment would only do two things: one, define marriage in the U.S. as the union of male and female; and two, protect the existing authority of the state legislatures to decide all issues of marital benefits. "Of course, both goals are so reasonable that the ACLU is forced to make straw-man arguments that the amendment will allegedly 'wipe out every single law protecting non-traditional families,' and so on." Angela Colaiuta, national field organizer for the ACLU Action Network, just issued a memo to union worker bees to "oppose (the) intolerance" of the Federal Marriage Amendment - intolerance that knows no political boundaries. "Representative Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.) has introduced a constitutional amendment that would attack the basic rights of millions of Americans," she points out. "The Federal Marriage Amendment would not only define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman, but it would also invalidate all legal protections for unmarried couples - gay or straight."